A presidential commission that is investigating U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq has concluded that many of the same weaknesses that...

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WASHINGTON — A presidential commission that is investigating U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq has concluded that many of the same weaknesses that plagued U.S. efforts to investigate Saddam Hussein’s regime are preventing the United States from collecting accurate intelligence on Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Few, if any, U.S. spies have penetrated either country, its top leadership or its weapons programs, the panel concluded. As a result, the United States has relied heavily on satellite photos and communications intercepts, and on foreign-intelligence services, exiles and defectors.

In North Korea and Iran, as they did in Iraq, officials also have extrapolated from older, confirmed information to make estimates about nuclear and other weapons programs, said current and former officials who are familiar with drafts of the commission’s top-secret report.

A spokesman for the commission, which is co-chaired by appeals-court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., didn’t return repeated phone calls seeking comment. However, the report was described to Knight Ridder by a half-dozen current and former officials who have reviewed versions of it or have firsthand knowledge of the events described in it. None of the officials acceded to repeated requests to speak on the record, citing the highly classified nature of the report and the fact that it hasn’t been formally delivered to the White House yet.

President Bush will receive the full report tomorrow, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He declined to comment on its contents before a declassified version is released.

One official who is familiar with the commission’s work described the report as “unusually blunt.” It’s expected to raise new doubts about the reliability of U.S. intelligence on North Korea and Iran, in addition to those already prompted by the lack of evidence to substantiate many of the Bush administration’s charges about Iraq’s weapons programs and ties to terrorism.

In the more than three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. intelligence apparatus has been revamped. At Congress’ direction, the government is establishing a new intelligence chief — a director of national intelligence — and new centers to focus on counterterrorism and counterproliferation.

Yet the nine-member panel has found that more must be done to improve the coordination among the 15 agencies that comprise the intelligence community. The commission will blame enduring cultures at each agency for driving decisions to prevent intelligence sharing among them, officials said.

Bush created the commission under pressure after U.S. inspectors failed to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, despite the administration’s assertions before the war that such weapons existed.

The panel examined in some detail the claim by an Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball” as part of its effort to identify gaps in the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on foreign nuclear, chemical and biological-warfare programs and terrorist groups.

“Curveball” was an Iraqi chemical engineer who turned up in a German refugee camp in 1998, said four former senior administration officials who were involved in reviewing intelligence on Iraq. He told his German interrogators he was involved in helping to design mobile biological-warfare facilities. The Germans passed the information to U.S. intelligence officials.

The commission concluded that top officials were never told that German intelligence officials had warned their U.S. counterparts that the defector might not be trustworthy, and that the only U.S. intelligence official who met him had similar qualms.

Despite these qualms at lower levels, no written warning about Curveball ever was issued, and administration officials repeatedly used his bogus claim that Iraq had mobile biological-weapons facilities in making their case for pre-emptive war against Iraq.

Curveball’s claim was featured in a Feb. 5, 2003, speech by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council, in the key U.S. intelligence assessment of Iraq’s illegal arms programs, in a White House background paper released as Bush spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, and in the president’s Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address.

Current and former U.S. officials who were involved in preparing the administration’s case for war or the post-invasion weapons hunt said the Curveball case was mishandled from the start.

Other new details:

• Former CIA Director George Tenet, his then-deputy, John McLaughlin, and other senior intelligence officials failed to tell Powell and other senior policy-makers that Curveball had never been formally debriefed by U.S. interrogators.

• Neither the Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversaw the case, nor the CIA ran Curveball’s information through a “competitive analysis” — in which a team of experts challenges its veracity — or subjected him to routine verification procedures such as polygraph tests.

• U.S. intelligence analysts also disregarded the fact that Curveball’s brother was a senior official of the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi opposition group that the CIA thought was unreliable.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.